Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Vietnam Police Probe Church Land Dispute

Police in Vietnam's capital have launched a criminal investigation into Catholic Church protests over a land dispute, while state-run media accused church leaders Tuesday of abusing their power to incite followers to confront the Communist government.

Catholic parishioners and priests have been holding daily vigils for the past month at the disputed land, a block away from St. Joseph's Cathedral in downtown Hanoi. They are praying, singing and holding candles while demanding the handing over of the land, which was taken by the government nearly four decades ago.

Thousands of followers blocked the street Friday in the largest gathering, as many from outside Hanoi came to celebrate the 90th birthday of Cardinal Pham Dinh Tung. It was a rare scene in Vietnam, which typically does not tolerate any form of dissent.

The parishioners removed the iron gates to the 2.5-acre property, which housed the Vatican embassy until 1954 when the Communists defeated French colonialists. They also planted a giant cross at the building's entrance and set up tents on the grounds.

Their actions violated Vietnamese laws, the New Hanoi newspaper said Tuesday.

Police in Hoan Kiem district, where the property is located, decided Saturday to launch an investigation into the crimes of damaging property, causing social disorder and obstructing officials from doing their duties, it said.

District police were not available for comment Tuesday.

The newspaper accused Hanoi's church leaders of instigating followers to confront authorities.

"What are they pursuing when they are ruthless (in pushing) Catholic followers to confront the government?" the newspaper asked.

"Abusing the belief and trust of followers to turn them into their instruments for their own goals, they have gone counter to God's teachings," it said.

Church leaders have said they only want the land returned and are not advocating that parishioners clash with the government. Instead, they maintain the followers are holding peaceful vigils.

The Communist government says all land in Vietnam belongs to the state, and individuals and organizations are only granted land-use rights.


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